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Racial Past and Future

Several events last week - the passing of three pivotal Southern politicians and two historic Supreme Court decisions - remind us how the country has changed in the past 40 years and highlight the debate over how to further racial equality.

The segregated South was always a more complicated place than the rest of the country understood. It was the kind of place where Lester Maddox became famous for driving off blacks with ax handles from his Atlanta restaurant. Yet when he became Georgia's governor, he called for fairness and appointed blacks to important state positions.

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Strom Thurmond campaigned against lynchings in the 1940s. But he championed the segregationist cause as a presidential candidate and filibustered civil rights legislation as a United States senator, switching parties along the way. Yet when federal legislation guaranteed blacks' voting rights, he was one of the first Southern lawmakers to appoint blacks to his staff and directed federal dollars to help black South Carolinians.

Both Governor Maddox and Senator Thurmond argued that they were defending individual and state rights against federal encroachment. But they seemed not to understand how the system they defended violated African-Americans' rights under the Constitution.

The election of Maynard Jackson Jr. as the first black mayor of Atlanta in 1973 - the first black mayor of a major Southern city - typified the changes wrought by legal segregation's demise. He advanced blacks economically, pressuring white firms to hire them and steering more city contracts to minority-owned firms.

It's hard now to envisage the bad old days. Thousands of blacks now hold federal, state, and local office. So profoundly has the South changed that, according to the Census Bureau, blacks have reversed their century-long emigration from the South and are returning.

But racial issues continue nationwide, as seen in the Supreme Court's wrestling with affirmative action in its two University of Michigan decisions. One upheld diversity in the graduate law school; the other overturned a racial quota-like system for undergraduate admissions.

Debate now rages in the black community and nationally about how to deal with past wrongs. Should America put the past behind it and move forward? Or should it support "reparations" and other adjustments to "correct" it?

Sadly, too many proposed solutions to the nation's lingering racial problems emphasize race and group rights. But healing and progress depend mainly on discarding the obsession with skin color.